It worked a treat. The students who had been encouraged to think of a "fresh start", based around a temporal landmark, were more likely to start a new gym habit, improve their sleep hygiene or spend less time on social media - compared to those who had not been primed to see the date as a marked and significant division in the timeline. The New Year, of course, is an especially compelling starting point, compared to those other events. "It is a big chapter break for most people," says Milkman.
From failure to success
Sceptics may still wonder whether the practice is worthwhile. Surely, most people are only setting themselves up for failure - no? Yet the available data shows that the overall success rate is higher than many might think. According to a recent YouGov survey, 35% of people who made resolutions managed to stick to all of their goals, and 50% of people managed to keep some of their resolutions. That's a lot of people who are making at least some positive changes to their lives - even if they do also fail at some of their goals.
The way you frame your resolutions could make an important difference. Per Carlbring at Stockholm University recently tracked the progress of 1,066 people who made New Year's Resolutions at the end of 2017. He categorised their intentions into two classes. Some were "avoidance goals" - which, as the name suggests, involved quitting something like sweets, alcohol or social media. The others were "approach goals" - which involved adopting a new habit - such as swimming twice a week or practising the guitar in the evening. On average, the participants were about 25% more likely to meet their approach goals than the avoidance goals. "Instead of stopping things, you should start doing things," he concludes.
I can easily see how this effect played out in my own resolutions for 2021. I mostly kept my resolution of completing a HIIT workout each day (an approach goal) but failed miserably at my attempt to quit social media (an avoidance goal). Fortunately, Carlbring says we can often turn an avoidance goal into an approach goal to maximise our chances of success. Supposing you want to lose weight. "Instead of saying that I want to stop eating a candy bar every day, I might instead say that I want to start eating carrots each afternoon," he says. "Because that would increase your blood-sugar level, and you then wouldn't have the craving for something else."
Similarly, if I want to reduce my social media use, I might set myself the goal of reading 10 pages of an ebook whenever I am ready for a bit of downtime or distraction on my phone - a productive activity that should, I hope, lure me away from my usual doomscrolling. You'll still need perseverance, of course - but Milkman and Carlbring both argue that we should be forgiving of the odd failure. "If you face a setback, then you might think that you will never be able to achieve your goal," Carlbring says. "But you can try to view it as a lesson to be learned."
If you face a serious blockage, you can always try to look for another milestone that might mark a new beginning. If you've started to founder in February, for example, you might make a new commitment to start again at the beginning of March - a small act of reframing that should give you the boost of the fresh-start effect all over again. Any journey worth pursuing will include a few bumps along the way - but by understanding the psychology of personal change, you can vastly increase your chances of reaching the goal.